DAVID ARNOLD - ‘Roussillon Plume’ nearly turned allies into enemies

A painting of a scene at the Battle of Quebec in 1759. English soldiers of the 35th Regiment of Foot have just defeated the French Royal Roussillon Regiment. Men of the 35th will seize their enemy's white plumes as prizes of war. The 35th Foot will later be re-named as the Royal Sussex Regiment.
A painting of a scene at the Battle of Quebec in 1759. English soldiers of the 35th Regiment of Foot have just defeated the French Royal Roussillon Regiment. Men of the 35th will seize their enemy's white plumes as prizes of war. The 35th Foot will later be re-named as the Royal Sussex Regiment.

The Royal Sussex Regiment disembarked in Rouen in August 1914 having sailed across the Channel from Southampton.

The final phase of their voyage along the Seine saw the soldiers feted by cheering crowds of French civilians lining the riverbanks.

The badge of the Royal Sussex Regiment incorporated a white plume signifying the 1759 victory over the French.

The badge of the Royal Sussex Regiment incorporated a white plume signifying the 1759 victory over the French.

They covered every hillside and stood on vantage points on the cliffs and bluffs. Scores more came out in small boats to greet the troopships and bombard the British drawn up on their decks with fruit and flowers. The troops were mobbed in the town after disembarkation at Rouen’s docks.

Buttons and cap badges worn by the Tommies were much prized as souvenirs and it was a consequence of this demand that caused some unfortunate trouble. The Sussex men were proud of their cap badge and its place in the history of their regiment. They were fully conscious that the Roussillon plume on their insignia was a symbol of a famous victory. It dated from the Battle of Quebec where, in 1759, the 35th Regiment of Foot (who would later become the Royal Sussex Regiment) had soundly beaten the grenadiers of the Royal Roussillon Regiment, part of a large French army commanded by the Marquis de Montcalm. The 35th Foot had faced them in the line and, elated with success, the victors had claimed the furled white plumes from the hats of their prisoners and pinned them to their own tricorn headwear. It was a triumphant gesture that must have humiliated their erstwhile foe.

The British at Quebec were under the leadership of General James Wolfe. In a brilliant move, Wolfe had his army scale the steep Heights of Abraham above the St Lawrence River, a tactic that caught the French completely by surprise. The commanders of both armies were mortally wounded in the battle. The victory was a turning point in what was called the French and Indian War, a North American extension of the worldwide Seven Years’ War between England and France.

Two years earlier in 1757 roles had been reversed when the 35th Foot had been compelled to surrender besieged Fort William Henry to superior French forces led by Montcalm. The French army had included the Royal Roussillon Regiment. The British were allowed to leave the fort with their weapons but were then subject to murderous attacks by the Indian allies of the French who killed many of the retreating soldiers and civilians. It was an event portrayed in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1827 book, “Last of the Mohicans”, and dramatically recreated in the 1992 epic movie of the same name.

Now let’s return to the Great War. British military historian Lyn Mcdonald described what happened at Rouen in her 1987 book “1914: The Days of Hope”: “The distinctive white ‘Roussillon Plume’ was incorporated in the cap badge of the Royal Sussex Regiment in 1881. In France in 1914 there was not a single Sussex man who did not know the story and, in the very act of handing over their cap badges in the cause of Franco-British friendship, many soldiers managed to communicate a graphic version to the French, who were curious to know why this familiar Gallic device should adorn the badges of their Anglo-Saxon allies. Despite the language difficulty, the message came across loud and clear and the French did not take it well. There was almost a riot.

“Next morning, the Royal Sussex commander, Colonel Montresor, considerably put out, paraded the Battalion a company at a time to read them a lecture and to point out the necessity of tact. He suggested that in the circumstances it would be better to say, if asked, that the French had freely allowed the display of the plumes in recognition of the regiment’s bravery at Quebec. There was no further trouble, but when onward movement orders were received, the Colonel and his officers were distinctly relieved.”

Incidentally, less than a decade after besting them on the Heights of Abraham, the 35th Foot had another tangle with the French and came out on top once more. The incident occurred after the regiment had returned across the Atlantic, this time to fight to retain Britain’s possessions in the face of a rebellion by disgruntled and angry colonists. Now, as we all know, the American Revolution was a conflict that Britain ultimately lost. Even so, through a twist of fate, the 35th Foot would claim the distinction of remaining wholly undefeated on the battlefield in the course of the War of Independence.

This came about because a short while before the fighting more or less ended with the surrender at Yorktown of the main British army, the 35th Regiment of Foot was part of a large force sent south to the Caribbean to deal with a Gallic threat materialising there. The British successfully saw off the French and the 35th Foot duly took possession of the lovely island of St Lucia!